Supermarket special offers not so ‘special’

A Which? investigation into more than 700,000 supermarket prices has uncovered dodgy pricing tactics that could lead shoppers to believe they’re getting a better deal than they are.

Consumers tell Which? that special offers encourage them to buy products that they don’t really need. We identified four tactics that we believe were misleading, affecting products from fresh fruit to toiletries to pet food:

1 Products becoming more expensive than the original price per item when they go into a multibuy offer – for example, Asda doubled the price of a single Müller yogurt from 30p to 61p as they went onto multibuy at 10 for £4. The price went back to 30p when the offer ended. This meant the yogurt cost more per item when you bought 10 under the offer than when you bought one before or after it.

2 Products being sold on ‘offer’ when in fact they have been on sale at the reduced price for longer than the original price – for example, Tesco sold Beck’s beer for 190 days on discount and only 70 days at the higher price.

3 Prices being increased immediately before going on ‘offer’ making the discount appear more significant – for example, Ocado strawberries increased in price from £3.89 to £4.38 for 13 days. They were then sold as ‘was £4.38 now £2.19/£2.29/£2.25’ for 112 days, though there were nine days within this period when they were sold at £4.38.

4 Products not being sold at the higher price immediately before going on offer – for example, Aquafresh Milk Teeth Toothpaste was labelled as ‘was £1.74, now £1.15’ at Asda. The highest price it was sold at before the offer was £1.17, during our tracking.

Our research found that almost two fifths of consumers said special offers encourage them to buy products that they don’t really need, and a third had bought a special offer they’d regretted. A quarter of people even try to avoid end-of-aisle displays so that they don’t get sucked into buying special offers.

Which? wants government guidelines on pricing to be tightened. While the existing rules are supposed to make sure that supermarket special offers don’t mislead shoppers, we feel they leave too many loopholes. For example, the rules state:

> the ‘was’ price should be the most recent price a product was sold at for 28 consecutive days, and

> a product shouldn’t ordinarily be on offer for longer than it was at the higher price

However supermarkets can simply get around these rules by explaining the offer on a sign stating the date(s) something was at a higher price.

The rules also include the coverall get-out clause by stating that what is ‘reasonable’ depends on the individual circumstances.

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director says:
“At a time when household budgets are squeezed and food bills are going up, many people are on the look out for a bargain. It’s unacceptable that shoppers are confused into thinking they’re getting a good deal when that might not be the case.

“Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about whether a special offer is really ‘special’, so we want the supermarkets to play fair and the Government to tighten up pricing guidelines so that people can shop with confidence.”

– ENDS –

Notes to editor
1. The full article “Supermarket special offers exposed” appears in the June issue of Which? magazine.

2. Supermarket responses also available on request.

3. Which? looked at a year’s worth of data (31 January 2011 to 1 February 2012) from independent grocery shopping website We also surveyed 1,802 UK residents online in February 2012.

4. Which? also recently investigated energy tariffs and discovered that incentives like football merchandise, charity donations and carbon offsetting may mask poor value energy deals. For more information on ‘10 energy tariffs to avoid’ please visit:

Press Release: ,